Names give orientation. Names give clarity. Names give identity. However, names can also be misleading. In the worst case, they can even have a negative impact on the reputation of a person, product, or company. That was the case with automotive manufacturer Volkswagen, for example, who made a bit of a misstep when naming its 2001 sedan Phaethon.
In Greek mythology Phaethon is the son of the sun god Helios. He borrows his lord father’s sun chariot, but cannot control it, causing a catastrophe of universal proportions. To make a long story short, associating “antiquity’s affluenza teen” with the company’s new flagship was not received particularly well.
Naming becomes much more difficult if, for example, the company name has to be translated for markets such as China and completely new characters are used. Several stumbling blocks are lurking here that Western companies have to take into account.
Probably the most workable variant is a mixture of transliteration and carefully selected Chinese characters. Some of the better examples here include the automotive manufacturer BMW. It’s known in Chinese as “bao-ma,” which roughly translates to “valuable horse” – an extremely positive description of a luxury car brand.
Simple “one-to-one” transliteration may not be bad per se, but in the end, some true character monstrosities tend to emerge in Chinese. These are then neither particularly easy to pronounce, nor do they have a symbolic meaning. Yet in the worst case, there is a meaning: The social network Facebook can tell a sad story about that.
The transliteration “Fēi sǐ bùkě,” pronounced “fay-suh boo-kuh,” is extremely similar to the Chinese phrase for “must die,” and thus regularly makes for some venomous comments.
So it isn’t all that easy to establish company names in the Chinese market, which naturally raises the question: Why not just stick with the Western spelling and avoid any potentially embarrassing translations? Many Chinese people do already speak good English, have traveled extensively, and have international contacts.
That may be a valid argument, but unfortunately, for several reasons it falls a little too short. Even in international companies, Chinese employees speak Chinese with one another and in contact with authorities or suppliers. This ultimately requires a suitable Chinese name.
In addition, even the most international customers are embarrassed to pronounce difficult brand names. Incorrect pronunciation or intonation of the name would amount to a loss of face, which you would want to spare your paying clientele at all costs.
However, anyone who does without a Chinese name puts their fate in the hands of customers and employees, who will then simply improvise. This was the lesson learned by the outdoor company The North Face, as at first the company was called “le si fe si.” What does the transliteration mean? It doesn’t mean anything!
Then there was a word-for-word translation to “bei lian,” i.e. “northern face,” which still doesn’t seem quite right. Ultimately, The North Face rested on the similar fan nickname: “bei mian.” Translated, this means “north.”
The Dallas Mavericks, team of German basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki, know to use the fan-base properly. For roughly 20 years, the Mavericks were known as “ziao niu,” (“little cows”) in China, which has relatively little to do with the actual meaning of a maverick, namely a wild horse.
The club and its owner, Mark Cuban, ultimately decided last year to ask fans in China what they thought the 2011 NBA champions should be called from there on out. Cuban called on fans to submit ideas using a video message on Weibo - the Chinese Twitter - and after just two weeks, there were more than 50,000 suggestions. Thanks to the clever fan integration, the days of the “little cows” from Dallas are now over, and the era of the Dallas “Lone Ranger Heroes” has begun.
This may still be a bit off symbolically, but at least the Mavericks are no longer sluggish cud-chewers.